You probably saw this article in the Guardian a few days ago. A disgruntled, disillusioned writer tells of the torrid time he had with producers at BBC3 Comedy, following the commission of his Sitcom pilot ‘Inn Mates’.
I feel for this guy, really I do, and to his credit, he said he is happier having turned his back on television writing and is now doing something entirely different. I applaud him, there are times I have wanted to do the same – at least my liver has wanted me to.
I have been in, out and round about television for the past 20 odd years and I can say hand on (what is left of) my heart that bringing your own work; fresh, wriggling, still wrapped in a baby blanket, to the commissioning table is a tough thing to do.
Writing is a very hard. Writing something really good is harder. Writing something very good that actually gets commissioned is so hard diamonds wouldn’t scratch it.
So, when you get as far as this writer did, and find that there are still mountains of hard stuff to climb, he must’ve been crushed. The wind whipped from his sails. Beaten, wounded and winded. Ouch.
But that’s where my sympathy stops. Because although he was gutted, when, still basking in the green light glow of a commission, he realised that it was not just his say that counted anymore, it was at this point that he needed to quell being incredulous and start being collaborative.
There is a very defined and pretty much rigid hierarchy in television, but it still remains, creatively and managerially, a collaborative place to get stuff done and drama made.
You need to collaborate at all levels and pretty much all of the time. The time when you are allowed a single say, to have the majority vote, to have the solo sign off, is when you are writing your script.
Television Producers and Commissioners need you to have that freedom; that place to express yourself.
But if you do the unthinkable, and actually get past the competition, then the gate keepers and finally gain access to the inner sanctum and are actually sitting in the same room as a Producer who not only likes your work but also wants to champion it all the way to transmission, you need to get practical and learn some diplomacy. Fast.
Do not take your ball home. The Producer will not run after you to get your ball back. They will go and find another ball and another ball owner.
Here’s another horrible truth about television drama. Lots of Producers are squeakily young, very clever and oozing with confidence. It’s hard, when you’re sleep deprived because you’ve been up since 4.30am worrying about this meeting and what’s going to happen next, to face a room of shiny faced dramaturges, with their flicky hair and their opinions. But face it you must, even though your mouth feels flocked and your belt’s too tight.
I have worked in drama series and serial development for both the BBC, for Granada and Carlton and have walked the tightrope between creativity and collaboration many times. And it really is a balancing act.
As a Development Producer, my agenda was to get as many projects as I could away from the starting gate, via (usually) a treatment or an episode outline. If I could get my Producer or my Exec Producer interested enough to pay for a script fee, then the lucky (and I use that term wisely) writer would then be able to write the script we had been dissecting and discussing for weeks, sometimes, months.
It’s a slow process. If, (and this was, in my experience, rare) we decided to take on to our development slate an already written script with a serial element attached, then the writer would most definitely have to prepare for his/her script to be pulled apart, put back together (possibly a little differently) and generally tossed about until it and the serial element all passed the tests of both the Executive’s vision and that of the Channel as a whole.
A commissioned piece of television drama is an organic thing; created and written into script form by the writer, it is then added to, subtracted from, ironed flat and pummelled into the shape that best suits the channel and those with the money to make it happen on screen; ie: the Production Company and the Broadcaster.
I know this is a hard lump of not very creative sounding truth to swallow, but no television drama, not even those penned by the Magic Circle of writers like Paul Abbot, Sally Wainwright or Jimmy McGovern go entirely un-touched all the way to transmission. Those further down the writing food chain (that is, most of us) have to learn to stand up for what we think is worth the fight, and to let go of what we don’t think is worth shedding blood, sweat or a guaranteed format fee over.
And although from the sound of it, the ‘development process’ described by the writer in the article sounded particularly taxing and frankly, odd, for the most part, these script meetings are not about flinging un-hinged ideas around a table and hoping something will stick (although I have been to a fair few of those).
They are in the main, a creative, collaborative process where by all voices are heard and at the end of the day, the Executive Producer has the last say. That’s life. They do. And then, when the Executive Producer has won the battle around that particular table, it will be the Commissioning table over which another battle commences and it will be the Commissioner that have the last say. They do. It’s the hierarchy thing again.
Because there’s a story here to tell. The writer has just written it. The Producer likes it, the Commissioner has just commissioned it and now, it may need changing. Because after the story, comes the question of commerciality and will this thing deliver a high enough rating, to a specific demographic demanded by the channel? Is it going to be too expensive as first conceived? Would not the whole thing be better shot in Margate not Marbella? Can the he be a she? Can she have a darker past, and can we give her a dog?
I am not advocating we throw all originality out of the window in favour of something created in a test tube – some television series are made that way and it really does not work long term.
I am saying that the writer voice is key to the whole process.
I am saying a drama Producer is best served by allowing originality and a fresh, creative flow of writer voices across their desk, because it is only by allowing this creative flow that original drama and not ‘add water and stir’ sort of drama can make it on to our screens.
But there’s a lesson in all of this a writer wanting to enjoy working in television, is best served to learn.
You and your scripts are important. But you and your work are only part of the process.
Should you be lucky enough, in the near future, to be sitting around a table with a bunch of Producer types all pitching in and rummaging about in your lovely script; remember the three C’s: this should be creative, collaborative and will lead to commission, and if it’s not panning out that way – yet – fight for what you want to keep and sit on your hands if you feel like punching someone.
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